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Change and Resilience in Northeast Forests

September 4, 2013
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Slab City: 1890 and today

A joint Harvard Forest-Smithsonian study released today in PLOS ONE compares modern forests to their pre-colonial condition in a 9-state analysis of Northeastern forest change. More than 300,000 colonial-era "witness tree" records--never before analyzed at this scale--reveal that although the same types of trees are present today, the number and locations of these trees are dramatically different.

Maples in most towns have skyrocketed in number, while nut-bearing trees like beech, chestnut, and oak have declined.

As it turns out, the main determinant of these changes is not regional climate, soil conditions, or other direct ecological factors. It is the legacy of colonial farming. According to the study, if more than half a town was farmed, local forests have probably diverged a good deal from their pre-colonial condition.

David Foster, a co-author on the study, points out that despite forest clearing, widespread logging, fires, climate change, invasive pests, and disease, the Northeast today remains the most heavily forested region of the country. He adds, "The overriding theme of this forest region is resilience in the face of multiple impacts."  

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